Sounds and ideologies

The politics that result in samba music

Musical genre was instrumental to Negro awareness in the 1970s

Two views of the Negro world: on the side, samba musicians from a Rio de Janeiro samba school visit the newspaper and introduce themselves...

UH Collection / FolhapressTwo views of the Negro world: on the side, samba musicians from a Rio de Janeiro samba school visit the newspaper and introduce themselves…UH Collection / Folhapress

A song can change everything; it can trigger a movement or a revolution. Or it can become symbolic because of the unusual content of its lyrics. This is what happened in 1970, when composer Candeia (1935-1978), a native of Rio de Janeiro, launched the samba song called Dia de graça. The song’s lyrics contained the following symbolic words: “Negro, acorda, é hora de acordar/ Não negue a raça/ Torne toda manhã dia de graça” (Negro, wake up/ don’t deny your race/ make every morning a day of grace.) “This was the first time in the history of samba – and, perhaps, even in the history of Brazilian popular music – when an explicit call to action, directed exclusively at Negroes, had been included in the lyrics of a song, ” says Dmitri Cerboncini Fernandes, a professor of the Social Sciences Department of the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF). He is also coordinator of the research project A cor do samba: música popular e movimento negro, whose team includes professors Sergio Miceli, of the University of São Paulo (USP), and Gustavo Ferreira, of Fluminense Federal University (UFF). The project has the support of the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). It is based on Cerboncini’s post-doctorate thesis, A cor do samba: música popular e movimento negro, sponsored by FAPESP. The referred lyrics attracted the researcher´s attention to such an extent that he decided to do research on the songwriter’s biography. In the course of his work, Cerboncini came across a highly active movement that existed in the 1970s, in which prominent musicians such as Paulinho da Viola and Nei Lopes, were engaged in issues related to Afro-Brazilians. He also came across texts written by these composers that, in one way or another, “rewrote” the history of samba as the legacy of African culture in Brazil.

Up to that time, the samba had been described by essayists, critics and specialists as a national symbol, the summary of the contribution of the three races that shaped Brazil, a legacy of the racial democracy that had ruled the country since the 1930s. “This scenario began to change after the actions of these samba composers.” Lyrics were written to praise African characteristics and to include musical instruments linked to the Afro-Brazilian religions. In addition, the samba composers began to pioneer closer contact with African nations. A different scenario was thus created. “Concurrently, the decade witnessed the revival of the Negro movement, with an unheard-of affirmative tone which praised the Afro-Brazilian identity and culture. I believe that these are the strongest indications pointing to a rising, new ´melting pot, ´ that blends the advent of a strongly aware, politically active Negro intellectuality, which was against the military dictatorship, and which began to view the samba as one of the main Negro legacies to be protected and valued,” the researcher points out.

...far from the exotic, a march by the Negro movement in Rio de Janeiro

Niels Andreas / Folhapress…far from the exotic, a march by the Negro movement in Rio de JaneiroNiels Andreas / Folhapress

Among the findings in the professor’s research study is the existence of a representation that appeared in the 1970s, conferring a new identity upon the “ authentic” samba – namely, the legacy of the Afro-Brazilian culture, in competition with the “national culture”. “That perception was established by a group of samba songwriters and musicians, journalists, and other intellectuals engaged in the period’s latent issues, such as, for example, the supposed characterization of Carnival and the unchecked and impoverishing commercialization of the samba,” he explains.

At the same time, the Negro movement rebounded strongly after a long period of forced disappearance, “ which provided the opportunity for a meeting of ideas formulated by artists and intellectuals, thus preparing a space for exchange among them.” Fernandes adds that the logic as regards activities related to popular music was linked to other unfamiliar dynamics, in this case the flourishing social movements. “ This resulted in a kind of samba that participated in the affirmation of the Negro identity within several scopes and, as an offset to a Negro movement that viewed the samba and the samba songwriters and musicians as the highest expression of the Negro culture.” The researcher emphasizes that this does not mean that racial issues were not previously referred to in samba songs; the songs that mentioned these issues were either underscored by unfounded allegations, by humor – generally based on cordial discrimination –, or by other reasons. “The important fact to highlight, but is that the lyrics never praised the Negro´s relationship with samba, as being the samba´s exclusive producer, creator, or cultivator; this fact only surfaced in the 1970s.”

In his opinion, it is difficult to pinpoint how, within the broad front created against the common enemy – namely, the military dictatorship – such a front, comprised of a mishmash of leftist activists, journalists, intellectuals and artists with different political leanings, could have given rise to a specific group of samba musicians that challenged that order and whose activities were known for their political bias seen in different levels – especially in their musical and literary works. “Each samba musician followed a specific path and there were various channels that interfered in the shaping of that arrangement. Paulinho da Viola, Candeia and Martinho da Vila had close contact with journalists, members of the academic community, artists and intellectuals who were members of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), as for example Sérgio Cabral and Lena Frias. This facilitated the voicing of their statements, interviews and activities – artistic or not – in the different media the referred people worked in.” Other samba musicians, such as Nei Lopes, had Trotskyite political leanings, due to the contacts established during the period he was enrolled in law school. “Theoretically, this political tendency was more closely aligned with the reborn Negro movement.”

Samba musician Candeia, one of the movement´s main representatives

Archive / Agência O GloboSamba musician Candeia, one of the movement´s main representativesArchive / Agência O Globo

The researcher states that these engaged samba musicians were relatively “educated.” That is, unlike the reputation of the older generation of samba musicians, these samba musicians had a good educational level. Candeia got the highest grade on the entrance exam to join the civil police force; Paulinho da Viola was a bank employee; Nei Lopes had a degree from the University of Brazil (currently, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/ UFRJ); Martinho da Vila was a sergeant in the Army. “In the meantime, the artistic community became increasingly politicized, which was expressed in the art; political leanings were part of the artists´ lives.” In this context, Muniz Sodré – although not a samba musician – was especially relevant. Muniz Sodré was an academic who was concerned about the issues around the samba. In 1979, he published a book, O dono do corpo (Codecri), a pioneering book on the history of the samba punctuated by radicalism and which once and for all elbowed out the predominant view that the samba was “national, “ that is, a product of the three races that shaped the nation.

Fernandes explains that there was no collective thinking or active movement on the part of these musicians. “It was a junction of numerous unplanned factors, a kind of meeting of various simultaneous resolutions and tensions involving elements of – among others – a political, artistic, intellectual and economic nature.” To exemplify, the affinity that flourished between the ideals of the Negro movement and the ideals of the samba musicians and other intellectuals when the military dictatorship partially lifted some political restrictions cannot be viewed as having been anticipated.

On the left, Paulinho da Viola, in 1974; on the right, Martinho da Vila, in 1977

Folhapress e Archive / AEOn the left, Paulinho da Viola, in 1974; on the right, Martinho da Vila, in 1977Folhapress e Archive / AE

Cerboncini sheds a light on a period that has not been significantly focused on in academic papers, even though it was a period during which the samba had considerable musical and commercial strength. “Conflicting opinions reflect the absence of deeper academic reflection on what actually happened at that time. We can undoubtedly state that Martinho da Vila and Clara Nunes were among the bestselling singers in those times, along with Paulinho da Viola and Beth Carvalho. Cartola, Adoniran Barbosa and Nelson Cavaquinho launched their first long-play records in that decade, even though they had already been on the road for many years. With the exception of the music composed by Candeia, Elton Medeiros and Nei Lopes, other samba musicians, among them Benito di Paula and Luiz Ayrão, were not given favorable reviews by critics, although they sold millions of records,” the professor says. He adds that there were a number of successful initiatives that supported the samba, as exemplified by the initiatives implemented by Hermínio Bello de Carvalho and Sérgio Cabral at the National Arts Foundation (Funarte).

This research study has ties to a theme project coordinated by Miceli and funded by FAPESP: A formação do campo intelectual e da indústria cultural no Brasil contemporâneo. Fernandes was involved in this project as well. In this case, there are two sides to the research: one side is focused on analyzing “highbrow” culture and intellectuality; the other side is more closely linked to “mass” elements, so to speak. Miceli is the senior researcher on this research project. “The element that interested me the most in Dmitri´s study was the effort to rewrite the social history of the samba musicians, beyond the normal hagiographic parameters, as well as the effort to qualify the musical aspects in the creative work of various generations,” Miceli points out. “To understand the prominence of this institution, including with the recording industry, one must understand how it incorporated a specific past. In addition, one must understand how this institution reinvented the past and, at the same time, updated it by mobilizing an aesthetic intelligence that went way beyond popular music in itself,” says professor Marcos Napolitano, of the Social History Department of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), who was Fernandes´ advisor during the latter’s post-doctorate program.

“Popular Brazilian music was not only a set of historical events; it was also a narration of these events, perpetuated by memory and by history, which articulated and re-articulated events as if they were expressions of ‘weak times’ and ‘powerful times’ of history. They express a syncopation of ideas, which provide the passing of time with rhythm and fluidity. This builds a live, open and unpredictable element subject to ideological revisions, aesthetic re-evaluations and new configurations of the past and the future,” says Napolitano. He highlights two aspects in the study conducted by Fernandes: “This sociological and historical analysis of the intellectual construction process of a discourse on the samba that enhances its ‘African roots’ is a fundamental element. This discourse, as well as the musical expressions that are linked to it, attempted to detach the samba from the expression of a ‘racially mixed Brazilian nature,’” he adds. The researcher also praises the analysis that highlighted the link between culture and politics, “in this case, the role of the Communist and Trotskyite left , which enhanced the black, African samba.” Things can end well, in a samba.

The Project
The color of samba: popular music and the Negro movement (nº 2010/19900-3); Modality Post-doctoral research; Coordinator Marcos Napolitano – USP; Investment R$ 42.705,69